3 Steps to Identify Supplements
that Lack Scientific Evidence for their Reported Benefits
This article shows you a simple but reliable method to identify supplements that
do not have scientific support for their alleged benefits.
which is a National Library of Medicine (United States) web site where you can
search for articles published in peer-reviewed scientific journals.
Why check PubMed? Because the National Library of Medicine carefully selects
only high-quality journals that offer value to medical scientists around the
world. Selection criteria are detailed on this web page:
Step 2: Once on the PubMed web site, search for the generic (scientific) name of
the supplement in question. Supplement manufacturers must list the scientific
name for their supplement's ingredients on the label and in advertisements.
Supplements often contain many ingredients but usually only a few provide the
purported benefits. Those are the ingredients you want to evaluate--they are
often the same ones the manufacturer highlights in advertisements.
Step 3: This is the step some supplement companies don't want you to know.
Before you click on the "Search" button at PubMed.org, limit your search to
studies that utilize the right research methodology with the right population.
The right research methodology is a randomized controlled trial (the
double-blind, placebo control group design fits under this category) and the
right population is human beings.
Specifying human subjects is important because you want to know if the
ingredients in a supplement have been shown to produce the advertised benefits
in real live human beings--not just in rats pressing levers for food pellets or
in a "case study" with one person.
This is not to say that basic science research, which is often conducted
initially with animals, is unimportant. On the contrary, such research usually
serves as a crucial building block for subsequent clinical research with humans.
But basic science research does not provide scientific evidence for a
supplement's beneficial health effects on human beings. Only research with human
subjects, using randomized controlled trials, can offer such evidence.
On the PubMed.org search page, click on the "Limits" tab located under the
"Search" box. You will see a number of drop-down menus. First click on the
Publication Type menu and then select Randomized Controlled Trial. Next click on
the drop-down menu labeled, Humans or Animals and click on Humans.
Morinda citrifolia is the scientific name for a popular ingredient in a
nutritional supplement. First search on PubMed for Morinda citrifolia, without
placing Limits on your search.
How many results did you receive?
The count was 69 at the time I wrote this article. Looks impressive, huh?
But now search for Morinda citrifolia after first placing Limits on the search
as described above, so that you receive only those studies which provide more
definitive scientific evidence for the positive effects of Morinda citrifolia.
How many journal articles did you find searching with the specified limits? I
Thus, out of 69 articles found on PubMed.org, only one provides some evidence
for Morinda citrifolia's beneficial effects. In addition, those results were
obtained with a very specific patient population. Thus, in order to conclude
that scientific evidence exists for Morinda citrifolia's efficacy, scientists
would need to conduct additional randomized controlled trials with diverse
The simple research method described in this article will help you determine if
a given supplement possesses sufficient scientific evidence for its purported
About The Author
Mark Worthen is a Phi Betta Kappa graduate of the
University of Maryland's Honors Psychology program. He was
a Clinical Fellow, Department of Psychiatry, Harvard
Medical School and earned his Doctor of Psychology degree
from Baylor University in 1990. Communicate with Dr.
Worthen on the Contact page of
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